This summer I am working as a legislative fellow in the office of Senator Mark Udall. I received the position through the Rosenthal Fellowship for international relations. As a fellow in the office, I have been tasked with a portfolio of issues including the armed services, foreign relations, and trade. One of my primary responsibilities has been writing memos, or "primers" providing the Senator or another staffer with an in-depth, but concise look at an issue. I have found the work to be fast paced and exciting.
One of the first issues I was tasked with was Senate ratification on the UN Law of the Sea Treaty. As part of this assignment I represented my office at a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable discussion titled The Law of the Sea and Naval Power in the 21st Century moderated by Vice Admiral James W. Houck and John B. Bellinger, III. For many reasons the Navy strongly supports ratification of this treaty, but it has turned into a political issue, with opponents arguing that accession would sacrifice American sovereignty on the seas. Following this roundtable and my own research I wrote a memo for the Senator recommending his support for Senate ratification of the treaty.
Another issue I have spent considerable time on is the push for the armed services to begin developing and using renewable sources of energy, including bio-fuels. The Department of Defense frames this as an issue of national security. Our entire defense infrastructure is reliant on foreign oil, and every day our servicemen and woman put their lives at risk delivering petroleum based fuel to our outposts overseas. The DoD has a long history of taking advantage of economies of scale and investing in advanced technologies, thus making these technologies accessible and affordable to the public - think the microchip, or GPS. However, the short sighted views of opponents have derailed these efforts, and as a result, our nations national security remains hand-cuffed to foreign sources of energy. Senator Udall is a strong supporter of this initiative, and as a result I have been able to do considerable research on the topic.
The third major issue I have worked on is whether or not the U.S. should extend permanent normal trade relations (PMTR) to Russia. Currently there is cold war era legislation in place prohibiting PMTR, and as Russia prepares to accede to WTO membership there has been a push to repeal these laws, and open up trade with Russia. Detractors to this idea usually frame their argument in the light of Russia's human rights record, and have responded with legislation of their own (see the Magnitsky bill). With that said, Russia is a huge market for American agricultural products, and in response to U.S. failure to extend PMTR, Russia has responded in kind with stiffening standards, making it increasingly difficult for American farmers to export their goods (primarily chicken and beef) to Russian markets. As a result, extending PMTR could be an economic boon for American farmers.
I cannot overstate how much I have learned working in a Senate office. Working on different issues every day, attending Congressional Research Service seminars on the legislative process, and attending the various briefings and seminars available in DC has been a tremendous learning experience for me. I would strongly recommend spending some time on "The Hill" to anyone intersted in public policy - you will not regret it.